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The glossy truth: You will never look like a mag cover

  • Graphic designer says 'we’re constructing people that don’t exist' for magazine covers
  • She says cover photos are (almost) always entirely retouched
  • Want to know how to spot a Photoshopped cover? Look for pores and bags under the eyes (Hint: You won't find them)
The glossy truth: You will never look like a mag cover
Jennifer Lau

Editor’s note: Jennifer Lau is a senior graphic designer and photographer with years of experience in professional portrait retouching.

After staring at these before-and-after GIFS of retouched cover photos and hearing model Cameron Russell’s TED speech, we at HLN wondered what it really takes to look like the models on covers of magazines. So we talked to someone who used to edit them. 

HLN: What does it really take to make a photo look magazine cover-worthy?
Jennifer Lau: Retouchers edit everything: They elongate necks. They tuck in arms. They take out veins. If someone is sitting and their stomach looks unflattering, they will remove the extra skin from the image to make it look more attractive.

HLN: How long does it take to retouch a cover photo?
JL: Depending on the to-do list, it can take anywhere from a day to a week. Any image that’s going to get a lot of visibility will probably take about a week, especially going through multiple reviews. It really depends on where it will be visible, too. If the photo will be seen on a website, in a catalogue, and on a sign, you want it to look good across all platforms.

HLN: What’s the most common feature that gets retouched in a photo?
JL: It depends on the application of the image. If it’s a beauty magazine promoting skin cream, they’ll a lot of filters to make it look like there are no pores. But if it’s an athletic magazine, they’ll use filters to enhance muscle tone and make it look like the model has more definition than she really does.

HLN: What are some of the weirdest body parts that often get retouched?
JL: People’s facial features -- manipulating the eyes to make them look bigger or more even, for example. It’s one thing to Photoshop an image to make it better, but it’s another to change a person’s features. But the overall shocking thing is the total amount of retouching that goes into a perfect cover. The hair, the make up, the arms, the legs, the bags under the eyes, the skin tone -- it all gets retouched.

HLN: So you’re saying that every magazine cover is Photoshopped?
JL: Entirely.

HLN: How can you tell if a photo has been retouched?
JL: Look at the skin texture. A lot of times in retouched photos, you’ll notice that the skin will have a finer texture with no pores, but the shoulders and neck will have more texture to them. Also, no flyaway hairs is a good sign: If someone has a windblown look but the hair looks perfect, they really retouched it.

HLN: How much does the editing change how the model really looks?
JL: If it’s a regular model, the editor might take more liberty with retouching than with a celebrity, because most people know what a celebrity looks like. When I was working in the fashion industry as a freelancer, we had before and after pictures hanging up on the wall. The models didn’t look like the same person. After retouching, the models looked happy and healthy, which is the opposite of how they looked before retouching (tired, dangerously thin, with bags under the eyes).

HLN: What’s has been your craziest experience while editing a photo?
JL: What bothered me the most is changing someone’s skin tone: Making the actual skin color look a different shade. You’re altering who someone is, someone’s identity. It happened more with African-American women where they want to lighten the skin tone a bit. I’ve had a legitimate reason to do it once -- to make it print better (the colors on the screen don’t always translate to the paper). Artistically, it can be done by changing the contrast against the background to help the model stand out on the page, but it does change the skin tone a little bit. But usually, they’re not legitimate reasons for changing skin tone.

HLN: What do you say when someone who looks at a cover of a magazine and says, “I wish I looked like that model”?
JL: “So does she.” I tell them that cover is more of an art piece than a photograph and to keep the right perspective when looking at magazines. Every person you see at a grocery store has bags under their eyes or lines on their necks, yet no one has them on the covers of magazines. Look at the contrast of what is real and what you see on the shelf -- it’s a good reminder of how artistic the photo is. I also think it opens up a bigger debate about how we define beauty. With all the advances in digital photography, we’re constructing people that don’t exist. There needs to be a discussion about what natural beauty means.

HLN: Do you think we’ll ever get to that point where we don’t buy into the artistic images?  
JL: That’s the power that a consumer has -- not to believe what’s on the shelf. If enough people do it, it will send a signal that the magazines are missing the mark when it comes to their audience. I can only hope for that with how far digital retouching has come, but I don’t think it will ever go away. We’ve been editing photos since inception -- this is nothing new.

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